Helen Little, Assistant Curator of the Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life exhibition at Tate Britain, delves into Lowry's links with France and looks at how Impressionism struck a chord with the young artist
In many ways Lowry is a curiously British phenomenon, yet part of his story is that in Manchester he made a vital connection with late-19th century French painting. A little known fact is that his work was exhibited earlier and more consistently in Paris – at the Salon d’Automne in particular – than in London. During the early 1930s Lowry even found his way into an elaborately illustrated French dictionary of contemporary artists where he was referred to as ‘Eleve de l’Ecole des Beaux Arts de Manchester at puis de Salford’ - a specialist in oil painting and drawings of industrial street scenes.
One of the ambitions of Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life has been to reveal how Lowry was introduced to Impressionism by his teacher at Manchester School of Art, Adolphe Valette - a talented painter who advocated painting en plein air. A wonderful discovery one winter’s afternoon last year in Tate’s archive was this small but brilliant oil sketch by Valette dated 11 November 1912 in which the artist has set out to capture the light and atmosphere of Manchester’s urban fabric.
Although he would go on to find his own unique language, Lowry later recalled that he could not over-estimate the effect of the arrival of Valette, full of the French impressionists and aware of everything that was going on in Paris.
The exhibition goes on to present a full breadth and beauty of modern life painting and demonstrates Lowry’s determination to make art out of the realities of the modern city, capturing the temporalities and instabilities of the urban experience. By presenting Lowry in the context of the some of the great nineteenth century artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Camille Pissarro, Georges Seurat and Maurice Utrillo, as well as the modern British painters Charles Ginner and Harold Gilman, it becomes evident that what unites them is their continuous search for ways to depict the unlovely facts of the city’s edges and the landscape made by industrialisation.
One can appreciate how the atmospherics of Impressionism and its drive to keep painting alive by painting new urban subjects struck a chord with the young Lowry. And although the dream-like world of the Impressionists would prove inadequate for the gritty battle of life Lowry sought to capture in paint, the ambition of this legacy clearly resonates throughout his work.